- Five Indonesian lab workers were arrested and accused of washing and reusing nasal swabs in up to 20,000 COVID-19 tests.
- The workers could have made up to $125,000 from the alleged fraud since mid-December, according to the local police chief.
- Authorities are investigating whether anyone was infected with the virus as a result of the contaminated swabs.
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Five Indonesian lab workers were arrested last week and accused of reusing nasal swabs in rapid antigen COVID-19 tests, Richard C. Paddock and Dera Menra Sijabat reported for The New York Times.
The workers are accused of using new swabs to test someone, then washing, repackaging, and using those same swabs to test others, per The Times. The lab workers worked for state-owned pharmaceutical company Kimia Farma at an airport testing site in the city of Medan.
The local police chief told reporters that more than 9,000 people could have been affected by the recycled tests, according to the South China Morning Post. The Times, however, puts that number much higher, reporting that the reused swabs could have been used in up to 20,000 COVID-19 tests. In Indonesia, every passenger must show a negative test result before boarding a flight.
The Kimia Farma lab workers could have made up to $125,000 in the scheme since mid-December, the police chief said, according to the Post. The company was charging about $14 per test, which the lab workers have been accused of pocketing each time they reused a swab.
Erick Thohir, Indonesia's minister of state-owned companies, tweeted last week that he "strongly condemns" the actions of the "unscrupulous" Kimia Farma workers.
"Such action must be subject to very strict punishment," he said.
Authorities said they're investigating whether anyone was infected with the virus as a result of the contaminated swabs, per the Times. Police said they would implement random checks at testing centers around the country to catch any other potential similar schemes.
Two Indonesian human rights lawyers, Ranto Sibarani and Kamal Pane, told the Post that they're planning to sue the pharmaceutical company in a collective civil suit. The lawyers said they passed through Medan's airport multiple times between December 2020 and February 2021 while traveling between Medan and Jakarta for hearings.
Sibarani told the Post he took at least 10 tests at the airport testing site in that period and that each test was an "awful experience" because he felt the lab workers were swabbing too deeply and swabbed his nose multiple times for one test.
"I feel that I am the victim of serious fraud and that I was violated through my nose," he told the Post.
The attorneys, who did not immediately respond to an email from Insider, told the Post they're gathering statements from people who were potentially affected by the scheme and they plan to claim roughly $69,000 in damages for each affected person.
Kimia Farma did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment for this story.
Not enough testing for the world's fourth-largest population
Indonesia, which has the world's fourth-largest population spread out over more than 17,000 islands, has reported 1,682,004 COVID-19 cases and 45,949 deaths throughout the pandemic, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
But experts the true number of cases is likely higher. In October, The Wall Street Journal reported that Indonesia was far behind on COVID-19 testing: It had tested a smaller percentage of its population than any other major economy.
Only about 3% of Indonesia's 270 million population is fully vaccinated so far, per Bloomberg's Vaccine Tracker.
The Indonesian government has faced criticism that it responded too slowly to the pandemic. The country has also made headlines for its unusual methods of enforcing COVID-19 safety measures.
In April 2020, as cases in parts of the country rose, volunteers started dressing up as ghosts and patrolling the streets to encourage people to stay home. But this plan backfired, as people came out of their homes to see the "ghosts."
Later last year, residents of a district in East Java were punished for not wearing masks by being forced to dig graves for victims of the virus. And in January 2021, police ordered tourists in Bali to do 15 to 50 push ups for not wearing a face mask in public if couldn't pay the $7 cash fine.